A crash course in Chinese etiquette

The Miss Manners of modern China predicts a clash of cultures in her new memoir
Joanne Latimer

I Stand Corrected by Eden Collinsworth

I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became Its Own Unforgettable Lesson

Eden Collinsworth

Never one to avoid adventure, American author Collinsworth spent the last half of 2011 and part of 2012 in Beijing writing The Tao of Improving Your Likability: A Personal Guide to Effective Business Etiquette in Today’s Global Economy. It was a bestseller in China, and Collinsworth was asked to lecture at universities and create a curriculum for children in the public school system. Her book is a thoughtful account of the joys and frustrations of living and working in a country where Confucian principles mix incongruously with Maoist thinking from the Cultural Revolution.

Speaking very little Mandarin, Collinsworth learned to navigate censors, bureaucrats, dinner hosts, and business colleagues with very different norms of behaviour. It’s okay, apparently, to ask what a gift costs or compliment someone on their portly girth. There’s a ritual to exchanging business cards (hold it with two hands, card facing the receiver, Chinese side up) and a limp handshake is appreciated as a sign of deference. When served a soup containing five rare Tibetan caterpillars, it’s best to eat up. When asked by a businessman if you’ll accept $20,000 to write a letter to Angelina Jolie, just put pen to paper. Don’t ever whistle, point, or snap your fingers, which the Chinese find offensive.

These tips, however, are just the tease. The substance of Collinsworth’s book is her predictions about the coming car crash that is modern China. She sees that robust business debate is hampered by the dread of giving offence. (In Chinese culture, she says, one is to never cause another to lose face by speaking too directly, surely an impediment to progress in industry.)

The education system, she predicts, will prevent national growth by stifling the creativity needed for innovation. Most important, she concludes that the quest for personal fulfillment in the new generation will soon threaten China’s stability. And what will happen in 2020, when a surplus of 35 million men—a number that “exceeds the entire population of Canada”—cannot find wives?